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Interview: Billy Roche, writer and musician

05 April 2019

‘Sometimes I look on a play as a kind of a mass’

I became a musician first. When I ran out of road, I decided to take up the pen, and, yes, now writing is my main source of expression.

I’ve written a novel, Tumbling Down; ten plays, including the Wexford Trilogy; a collection of short stories: Tales From Rainwater Pond; screenplays: Trojan Eddie and The Eclipse; and a TV drama, Clean Break.

If I was pushed to define myself, I’d say I’m a playwright by profession. I wrote Amphibians for the RSC, which was quite successful, and I have a new play coming out this summer.

The Wexford Trilogy was filmed for the BBC. A few young stars emerged out of it, such as Aidan Gillen, Liam Cunningham, and Dervla Kirwan.

I draw heavily on the eternal wisdom of myths and legends, which I try to marry to my knowledge of human nature and of life, as I know it, in a small town. All kinds of things happen here. The fact that I’ve made this my setting came as a bit of a surprise to me, but not any more. All the places I took for granted were going to give me locations for my plays, but married to Greek mythology and ancient myths, legends and biblical stories giving the backbone — the small married to the big.

My first novel was about growing up in my father’s bar, and everybody recognised themselves. None of them admitted it, but they kept telling me that they recognised other people; so I swore I’d never do that again. And, anyway, your hands are tied when you do that. People like things to be realistic, and are always looking for themselves in a mirror, and I like to invent.

I think Yeats said somewhere that there’s a governing myth attached to all our lives, and if we knew what it was we’d probably know what was going to happen to us. I think I’ve often written about the myth of Diarmuid and Gráinne, in the sense that someone — usually male, in my world — loses their soul to a younger wayward self. Tristan and Isolde would be the equivalent English myth. The screenplay of Trojan Eddie, starring Richard Harris and Stephen Rae, explored this theme; and I wrote Cavalcaders as a replay of the old Merlin myth, with all the different aspects of it played out.

Although they’re dredged up from my imagination, my characters are real to me: full of pain and guilt and yearning for the once-was or the might-have-been. They get up to all sorts of things, but when push comes to shove they are all mainly looking for love in some shape or form. I used to say that the battlefield between men and women was the canvas that I drew on, but now I believe it’s widened to the search for love and all its variants. Putting my characters through the wringer is essential, if only because I’m a dramatist, and when they’ve been truly tortured they need to be redeemed and forgiven, so that they can move on — a little more enlightened hopefully — to the next stage of their existence.

Forgiveness is an important element, or, perhaps, an understanding might be a more probable outcome if forgiveness is not forthcoming.

Sometimes, I look on a play as a kind of a mass, a sacrifice of some kind, or a ritual, and I’m looking for those kinds of patterns. The end result is redemption and salvation in some way, even in tragic circumstances. Frank McGuinness reviewed Tumbling Down, and said: “There’s no snakes in Roche’s Eden.” I’m not sure that’s true. I’m always watching out for the serpent, and temptation is always there. There are dark themes, and the Arthurian adultery theme comes into my work a lot.

But I won’t be writing about sociopaths or psychopaths. They don’t deserve my attention. It’s easy to write about the guy who climbs Mount Everest, but what about the little guy who carries his bag, who takes the same risks but doesn’t get the attention?

When I was a band leader, a roadie’s girl came to me and said: “Have a word with him.” (He was there.) “Tell him I’m the best he’s going to do.” She actually used that line, which I used later. He did marry her, and sadly, she passed away ten years ago, but they had a family together. That’s the kind of present real life gives you. Very innocent, isn’t it?

My young life was surrounded by family: three sisters and two brothers. My mother reigned gently over the household — apple tarts and toffee apples were her specialities — while my father worked in his nearby corner shop, and, later, he would take over the Shamrock Bar. This world gave me endless possibilities as a young writer.

Music was everywhere. My brother Jim played the trumpet, and my father played the accordion, and, in time, I would pick up the guitar. The town was just one big neighbourhood then, with everybody knowing everyone else — three cinemas, three Catholic chapels, 84 public houses, a handful of factories, streets, and avenues and laneways, and all of them there to be explored.

It’s not as personal as it used to be, but in the vital times — funerals, weddings, and birthdays — the fundamental things still apply: love, and all that jazz. The world is changing, but when push comes to shove we all have the same needs deep down.

I rise at around 8.45, have breakfast, and try to get to my office by 10. I work until lunchtime, and then back all afternoon again. Dinner at six, and, depending on my humour, I may go back for an hour or so in the evening. Of late, I’ve returned to music seriously and recorded an album, Dead Man’s Shoes — “psychedelic folk”, they tell me — and I’ve been known to take an afternoon nap, particularly after a little burst of inspiration.

God was everywhere when I was young — crucifixion, transubstantiation, resurrection, the Assumption, the ascension, the immaculate conception, confession, absolution, penance, purgatory, limbo, heaven, hell — the whole shebang. I was an altar boy: I served daily mass in Latin, which brought me even closer to the mystery of it all, behind the scenes, so to speak.

Religion was delivered with a heavy hand back then, I’m afraid. Now we all know what we know, the hypocritical nature of it all’s hard to endure. But people still believe; people still pray. I suppose you could say the devil, if you believe in him, wily creature, got into the very heart of it all and did his job, tempting and corrupting.

Do I believe in God now? No, at least not in the sense that my upbringing would prefer. So what am I? Atheist or agnostic doesn’t cover it. I think we might need to find a new word for what I am.

We’re living in turbulent times, and with Brexit looming over us all, the future looks bleak. Ireland will surely suffer if or when it comes to pass, and there will be far-reaching consequences for Britain, too. I believe it’s a castle built on sand. We can only hope that we can all prevail and prosper, but . . .

I’m happiest when all my family are gathered around the dinner table. We have three daughters and seven grandchildren, and I’m happy to report that our three daughters married wonderful young men whom we love dearly. My brothers and sisters are welcome, too, of course. And if you want to see me in heavenly bliss, then watch me at a good hurling match.

What gives me hope for the future? Dandelions. The bees love them, I’m told; so we shouldn’t be culling them, but letting them grow. The bee is such an important creature now. When the last bee goes, we’re dead.

What would I pray for if I prayed? Peace of mind for all — and maybe a Gibson guitar.

If I was to be locked in a place of worship for a few hours, I’d choose someone really clever as a companion, someone like Einstein. And I’d asked him or her if they’d solved the mystery of the universe yet, and what it all means: déjà vu, for instance, or the Music of the Spheres, or the true nature of time? And then I’d ask what exactly was it that Meat Loaf wouldn’t do for love.

Billy Roche was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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